The 2015-16 season was one that the Huskies began with lofty goals. With only one key player leaving the team, and two stellar grad transfers joining a solid base, many fans felt the team would be one with balance, depth, and experience. However, these preseason hopes, such as reaching the third weekend of the NCAA tournament, never came close to fruition. Instead, the Huskies performed shockingly average during the regular season, before goinng on a run to win the conference tournament inspired by the second-best shot of the year, courtesy of Jalen Adams. The season eventually ended with a twelve-point loss to the Kansas Jayhawks. For many Husky fans, this was seen as salvaging a below average season with a respectable finish, while still not attaining the difficult goals expressed in October. But, a closer look reveals the issues that plagued this team, and prevented them from doing damage in the big dance.
Grad transfers Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs were expected to step in and not miss a beat. However, they were still two new players who had never experienced the UConn system or gameplay. Depending on new players to perform in key roles is a formula for feast or famine. This is not a knock on Miller or Gibbs; they both averaged double figures and never expressed anything but love for the university. But, the team did not have the familiarity of playing together for multiple years. In addition, the loss of Ryan Boatright proved to make a much bigger hole than initially projected. Many felt that the additions of Gibbs and Adams would be able to make up for Boatright, and they did, for the most part, in the stats columns. However, the Boatshow had been an unquestioned leader, the alpha male who everyone deferred to during crunch time. This void was not filled completely by any player on the UConn roster. Gibbs, Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis, and Adams all attempted to exert their fortitude at different times, and were all met with mixed results. Without a calming presence of a true leader, the Huskies faltered late in many games, including losses to Temple, Houston, and Syracuse, and even in wins against teams like Memphis and Colorado. Very rarely were they able to maintain a 10 or 12-point lead and bury the other team. This was due to chemistry issues surrounding a lack of a true leader. In the coming season, the hope is that Jalen Adams or Rodney Purvis can emerge as the alpha.
POINT GUARD PLAY
Boatright was not just the Huskies’ emotional leader, he was also their floor general. Given that Sterling Gibbs had operated in a similar role his final season at Seton Hall, he was widely projected to come in and play as the lead guard. However, over the season, the picture became clear: Gibbs, while possessing a good handle, was in reality more of a shooting-specialist off ball guard than a true point guard. Jalen Adams could be the point guard of the future, but as an inexperienced freshman, handing him the reins and expecting a floor general was unrealistic. In fact, many times, it was wing Daniel Hamilton who brought the ball up the court and initiated the UConn offense. The game of basketball is evolving. The traditional big man is becoming less important, and a talented point guard is now the most critical position on the floor. This is doubly true in the college game, where, as UConn fans know better than most, a true point guard who commands respect from his teammates, his opponents, and the referees can will a team to victory. There was no commanding presence on this past version of UConn. The roster was deep and talented, probably their best on paper since the 08-09 Final Four squad. However, without the true point guard to tie everyone together and lead his team as a floor general, these skilled pieces did not come together.
There are many reasons why a team doesn’t win a national championship. However, statistics do not often tell the whole story. In 2015-16 UConn possessed one of the top defenses in the country, a roster stacked with long distance shooters, and the best free throw percentage in the NCAA. The reasons they came up short were intangible, and could not be properly expressed by merely looking at numbers. This coming year, the Huskies are younger and arguably not as talented. They lose several important players, including surprising draft-entrant Daniel Hamilton. However, the key players on this team (and presumptive co-captains), Purvis, Adams, and Amida Brimah will have played multiple years together, and could bring the kind of chemistry the 2015-16 team lacked. Winning the NCAA tournament is one of the hardest feats in sports, and the Huskies, despite less talent on paper, may be better equipped to challenge the vicious gauntlet next year.
Jalen Adams: http://www.nj.com/sports/index.ssf/2016/03/watch_uconns_jalen_adams_hits_amazing_shot_to_help_1.html
Sterling Gibbs: http://www.courant.com/sports/uconn-mens-basketball/hc-live-updates-uconn-men-vs-memphis-20160109-htmlstory.html
Rodney Purvis: http://www.newsday.com/sports/college/college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-uconn-vs-colorado-pictures-1.11586477